Efforts to save Lake Victoria failing as pollution escalates

Lake Victoria

A section of Lake Victoria in Kisumu City on July 6, 2023. The freshwater lake is facing pressure due to encroachment, pollution, abstraction of water, invasive species, weeds, and climate change.

Photo credit: Francis Mureithi | Nation Media Group

A boat ride into the gigantic freshwater Lake Victoria from Dunga Beach in Kisumu City feels like a fish out of water.

As the V-shaped leaking wooden boat floats across the freshwater lake, the colour of the water gradually changes to dark green.

The unpleasant waters emit a strong, bitter and unpleasant smell that irritates both the nose and the throat as the sailing gathers speed deep into the lake. It smells like sewage.

The once breathtakingly beautiful lake that was christened the ‘freshwater heart of Africa’ is now Africa’s contamination epicentre and a classic example of a biodiversity crisis.

The world’s largest tropical lake, which was credited for its ecological biodiversity, stinks to the high heavens.

The pungent smell has made the lives of fishers, local and international tourists who enjoyed a sun-kissed, cool and gentle breeze on the shorelines as the lake shimmered in the moonlight uncomfortable.

The lake was once full of marvellous mammal species like the hippopotamus, African clawless otter, spotted-necked otter, marsh mongoose, sitatunga, bohor reedbuck, defassa waterbuck, cane rats and giant otter shrew that were a sight to behold.

It was a great spot for swimming expeditions for tourists and provided a conducive environment to attract investors and tourists.

The lake's glory days are long gone as the once freshwater lake that was extremely clean is dank and gloomy.

Interestingly, five years after Kisumu Governor Anyang’ Nyong’o raised a red flag saying “Within 50 years, if nothing is done drastically, Lake Victoria will be dead”, his prophecy is coming true as the lake approaches tipping point.

The mouth of River Kisat is the gateway for toxic materials that are washed into the lake, seeping into the wetlands and depleting vital flora and fauna on the shorelines, contributing to freshwater extinctions.

Marabou stork

Marabou stork birds scavenging on the shores of Lake Victoria at Dunga Beach in Kisumu on July 6, 2023.

Photo credit: Francis Mureithi | Nation Media Group

The polluters cut across the inhabitants of the 10 counties that border the lake and small industries in urban centres. These industries bypass the effluent treatment regulations and then release their effluent into the lake raw, under the cover of darkness.

The waste from Jua Kali, which includes used oils, is also dumped in the lake by water runoffs and domestic waste water that contains damaging phosphorous from soaps.

Eateries around the lake are also heavy polluters as they don’t have waste water management systems.

 “The Kisumu water table is very high and this waste ends up in the lake but we have started a programme where we encourage residents to drain the sludge and bring to our treatment centre. The programme is gaining ground,” said Kisumu Water and Sanitation Company (KIWASCO) Managing Director Thomas Odongo.

The high number of boat operators who work during the day and night are also suspected to pollute the lake as they relieve themselves in the lake waters. The lake has about 15,000 boat operators.

The National Environment Management Authority (Nema) Kisumu County Director Leonard Ofula says: “The biggest challenge is identifying firms that discharge untreated water into Lake Victoria without passing the pre-treatment process at KIWASCO.

“We have arrested many suspects and taken them to court to deter them from such behaviour,” said Mr Ofula.

The world’s second-largest freshwater lake, which is equal to the size of Scotland, is a dumping ground of all types of dangerous waste. A study on the lake's water quality and degradation by researchers from Texas Southern University in the US and Uganda’s Makerere University revealed that Lake Victoria is heavily polluted with high traces of three dangerous minerals - lead, arsenic aluminum and phosphorus, which are not good for humans to consume in certain quantities.

 Dunga Beach

School children wait to take a boat ride at Dunga Beach on the shores of Lake Victoria on July 6, 2023.

Photo credit: Francis Mureithi | Nation Media Group

The contamination of the lake has reduced the supply of fish species like Nile perch, tilapia and omena. The hippos' breeding ground is no more as encroachment on the shores of the lake have eaten away their habitat.

The rare semi-aquatic antelope, the Sitatunga, and the African python have disappeared.

The wetlands no longer host many bird species that were only found only in the papyrus.

The wetlands have been reclaimed for agriculture, leisure and human settlement.

“The quality of fish at Lake Victoria is compromised by contamination,” said Michael Nyanguti, an environmental activist and chairperson of Magnam Environmental Network, a community-based organisation.

“The encroachment of the wetland and discharge of untreated wastewater is an economic sabotage,” said Mr Nyanguti.

“There is no political goodwill in Luo Nyanza. Our politicians are pretenders. Fishers have been thrown under the bus,” said Mr Nyanguti.

The effect of pollution is visible as people who had invested in cage fishing barely find any fish to cage.

“I had invested my retirement benefits by building a fish cage but the pollution has messed me up and all my Sh300,000 has gone down the drain,” said Mr Paul Obunga.

 “The mama samaki who work on the shoreline have lost their jobs” said Salim Abdallah, the vice-chairman of Kichinjio Beach Management Unit.

A lecturer at the Department of Environmental Science at Maseno University Dr Vera Atieno said: “The problem is lack of multi-sectoral approach by relevant state agencies to push for policy change and address issues affecting the lake from a united front and across the borders because this is a shared resource.”

Kisumu Director of Fisheries Susan Adhiambo said the county has made efforts to rehabilitate the lake.

“We’re piloting a European Union-funded project VicInAqua Water Treatment Project in collaboration with KIWASCO on recycling wastewater to reduce contamination in the lake.”

Lake Victoria Water and Sanitation Program (LVWATSAN) plans to improve water and sanitation in Kisumu County via a co-financed project by the French Development Agency, European Investment Bank and European Union and the Government of Kenya at a cost of Sh7.5 billion.

Under LVWATSAN, two existing wastewater facilities, Kisat and Nyalenda, will be rehabilitated and upgraded.

Dunga Beach

A man walks past plastic and other harmful waste that is collected from Lake Victoria at Dunga Beach in Kisumu on July 6, 2023.

Photo credit: Francis Mureithi | Nation Media Group

In addition, a new wastewater facility will be constructed near Otonglo area, which is expected to treat 4,000m3/day of wastewater and ensure that western part of Kisumu city is also sewered and does not contribute to environmental pollution.

The interventions are being implemented by Lake Victoria South Water Works Development Agency.

 “Our work is to remove all the contaminants in line with international standards and make sure the water is essentially safe,” said Mr Odongo.

Experts estimate that the fish production at Lake Victoria has dropped by 49 per cent.

This is attributed to many factors including contamination and overfishing.

Director in charge of fresh water research at Kenya Marine Fisheries Research Institute (KMFRI) in Kisumu Christopher Aura said the lake produces 115 metric tonnes annually valued at Sh12 billion.

Dr Aura said the pungent smell in the lake is due to decomposing water hyacinth.

He said the increased algae in the lake has made the lake waters turn green.

“Increased algae blooms, which utilise oxygen and contaminants like nitrates and phosphorus found in soaps and fertilisers, have led to fish kills,” said Dr Aura.

He allayed fears that the fish from the lake was contaminated.

“Concentration of heavy metals in fish is below the recommended threshold. The fish from Lake Victoria is safe for human consumption,” said Dr Aura.

But fishers are still feeling the effect of lake contamination. The fishers say even if the scientists say the water and fish are safe, many don’t believe them.

“The government agencies and devolved units can say whatever they want to say but on the ground things are different. Our fish is rotting after hours of catching them,” said Mr Abdallah.

The recent fish kill saw a clergyman conduct a funeral service of the fish in a bid to raise awareness of the seriousness of the contamination in the lake.

Data from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics Economic Survey 2022 shows that the total value of fish landed from freshwater sources grew from Sh20.6 billion in 2020 to Sh23.3 billion in the year under review accounting for 76.8 per cent of the total value of fish landed.

Lake Victoria accounts for about 96 per cent of Kenya’s total fish production.

The Lake Region Economic Blueprint says that a better life may not be achieved if the 10 counties whose economic livelihoods depend on this lake don’t pay special attention to lake contamination.

This story has been produced with support from JRS Biodiversity Foundation and MESHA